Two former Health Ministry officials cleared of helping Shiite death squads celebrated their release with friends and family Wednesday while outraged Sunni politicians called it a black day that showed just how dysfunctional Iraq's judicial system is.
Former Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili and Brig. Gen. Hameed al-Shimmari, who was in charge of the ministry's security force, were freed from U.S. custody early Wednesday, two days after an Iraqi court opted to drop kidnapping, murder and corruption charges against them for lack of evidence.
The trial before the three-judge panel had only started on Sunday, and there were widespread allegations of witness intimidation. The proceedings had already been delayed once because witnesses failed to show up.
Minority Sunnis viewed the trial as a major test of the judiciary in this Shiite-dominated country, which in the post-Saddam Hussein era is now led by a Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
The case's collapse has struck a blow to U.S.-backed national reconciliation efforts. It sent the Sunnis a message that they won't get justice in a country where tens of thousands of people already are being detained, many of whom are held for months without hearings.
'Black mark and grave'
The Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni political group, said in a statement Wednesday that it "considers today as a black mark and a grave setback in the history of the Iraqi judiciary system. What has happened today is a big mistake that should be corrected immediately; otherwise, the country will be drawn into disaster."
Al-Zamili and al-Shimmari were accused of aiding in some of the most horrifying sectarian violence that gripped Iraq in the wake of the Feb. 22, 2006, bombing of a revered Shiite mosque by Sunni extremists.
The officials allegedly used their positions to help the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, find and kill Sunni targets. Prosecutors charged that the militiamen were given access to public hospitals and ambulances.
A U.S. military statement issued after al-Zamili's 2007 arrest said without mentioning him by name that he was believed to have siphoned millions of dollars from the ministry to the Mahdi Army "to support sectarian attacks and violence targeting Iraqi citizens."
Once freed from a U.S.-run detention facility near Baghdad's international airport, supporters whisked al-Zamili and al-Shimmari back to their homes in the city for welcome-home celebrations.
Wearing a brown suit without a tie, al-Zamili was smiling and joyful as 100 people or more descended on his small house in Sadr City, a huge slum on Baghdad's east side. Al-Zamili sat in the middle of a tent erected to accommodate the crowd as lunch was readied in four huge pots.
Most of the visitors were officials from al-Sadr's various political offices.
"Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr congratulated me by phone this morning," al-Zamili said, referring to al-Sadr with an honorific.
Pressures and intimidation
Some people cried as they embraced him, while others offered words of encouragement and praised "his courageous stance."
Al-Zamili charged that during his year in jail, he came under intense "psychological pressure" from the American military.
"In my detention, the Americans practiced psychological pressure," he said, adding that he was kept in solitary confinement. "During the interrogations the occupying forces threatened that the judge would convict me and I would be executed."
When the court dropped the charges, the United States reserved judgment on the ruling.
On Monday, U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker said "there remain serious allegations of witness intimidation and other irregularities in this case that have not yet been fully or transparently resolved within the Iraqi system."
Al-Zamili described those who were to testify against him as "false witnesses" who had been promised visas to the United States.
"There was American interference. False witnesses were given visas to the United States," he said. "They falsely accused me of kidnapping and killing operations because I had evidence against them which show their administrative corruption."
Sides trade blame
But the Iraqi Islamic Party said that the corruption ran the other way — with al-Zamadi and al-Shimmari participating in murder and then militias threatening witnesses.
"We wonder why these two persons were released, while thousands of people who were acquitted by Iraqi courts are still being kept behind bars," the party's statement said.
An estimated 24,000 detainees were in U.S. custody as of last month. The exact number of people being detained by the Iraqi government is not clear, though it had reached 9,000 by the end of 2007, with the so-called surge in American troops pushing that figure higher as military forces were more active.
Parliament recently approved a limited amnesty for people held in Iraqi custody, and while government officials drew no connection to the release of al-Zamili and al-Shimmari, there were separate reports Wednesday of two groups totaling 110 prisoners being freed.